Striptease: From Gaslight to Spotlight

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We’re a dozen years too late to this party, but a copy of Jessica Glasscock’s 2003 book Striptease fell into our hands recently and we thought it was worth a brief shout-out. The publisher is Abrams, known for their coffee table art books — my visual artist partner brought the book into our lives, and as expected it is full of reproductions of vintage photos and lithographs covering the whole history of burlesque.

Less expected though was Glasscock’s comprehensive and scholarly essay that forms the spine of book.  (As the men used to joke about Playboy when I was a kid: “I only read it for the articles”). It’s a story that’s not as well known as it should be: the roots of the strip on 19th American stages and its very slow evolution, not really emerging as we currently understand it until burlesque in the 1920s and then its migration to nightclubs in the 1940s after the burlesque industry was harassed out of existence. And her coda of course: the classic burlesque revival (at least as it was in 2003 — a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then).

For show biz buffs, it’s a well known trajectory: from Lydia Thompson to Little Egypt to Gypsy Rose Lee to Blaze Starr to Dirty Martini and the Pontani Sisters. Glasscock leaves out an important chapter though and it’s a shame because it would have lent a better arc to her book. While she does mention the advent of the pin-up and men’s magazines, she misses the nadir of the journey, the 60s, 70s and 80s, the years of seedy porn and topless clubs. One might argue that the current burlesque boom is a specific backlash against that time, and also that this sort of thing is what killed the original elegant striptease. Other than this omission, a first rate narrative. And an even firster rate visual feast.

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